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Crucible of Gold


Page 4


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She nodded and dashed away, and shortly Ferris came into the clearing: quite altered, Temeraire found on closer inspection. He had grown heavier-set, especially in the shoulders, and perhaps he had been sunburnt so often that the color had finally stuck, for he was florid in the cheeks, and seemed older than he must be. Temeraire was delighted nevertheless: Ferris had perhaps not been so good a first lieutenant as Granby, but he had been very young at the time, and in any case he should certainly be an improvement over any of the officers here, and of Iskierka's crew, also.
Poor Ferris looked very ill, Laurence thought as he stood to meet him: untimely aged beyond his twenty and three, and, Laurence was sorry to see, the marks of strong drink beginning to be visible in his face.
"I am very happy to see you again, Mr. Ferris," Temeraire was saying, inclining his head, "however you have come here; are you lately arrived?"
Ferris a little stumblingly said he had come on a recent colony ship-he had heard-and there trailed off; Laurence said, "Temeraire, if you will excuse us; Mr. Ferris, perhaps you will walk with me a moment."
Ferris came with him to the small tent which Laurence was using for shelter: set apart from the other aviators, to avoid grating too often against Rankin; Laurence was doubly grateful for the privacy now. He waved Ferris to one of the small camp-chairs, and sitting said quietly, "I am also very glad indeed to see you again, and to have the opportunity to make my apologies, if you can indeed have the grace to accept them: I know of no man I have wronged more deeply."
Ferris darkened a little in the cheeks, and took Laurence's offered hand with a low and half-muttered word, not intelligible.
Laurence paused, but Ferris did not speak further, his eyes still downcast. Laurence hardly knew how to proceed-to offer amends at once impossible and insulting. He had thought to protect Ferris, and his other officers, by concealing from them his treason and Temeraire's; but the court-martial had struck wherever a target might be found, and for the sin of ignorance, Ferris had been dismissed from the service. A promising career blighted, a family heritage disgraced, and the only thing Laurence could not reproach himself for was that by some small grace they had not hanged him.
"We looked for word of you," Laurence said finally, "but-I could not presume to write your family-"
"No, of course," Ferris said, low. "I know you were in prison, when-" and they were silent once again.
"I can hardly offer you any recompense which should be adequate," Laurence said at last: as futile as the offer might be, still it must be made. "But whatever remedy should be in my power to make you-if you have come here intending to establish an estate, I would-" Laurence swallowed his distaste. "I can presume on some acquaintance with the governor, MacArthur; if you should-"
"No, sir, I don't, that-I heard you had gone, and Temeraire, to start the breeding grounds here," Ferris said. "I thought, if you were not an officer yourself, anymore, then perhaps you might-that I might be of use, if I came. And in any case-" He stopped, and indeed did not need to go on to make abundantly clear the other motives which should have made such a flimsy hope sufficient to induce him to take ship around the world, for a tiny and ill-run prison colony: the worst sort of disgrace and mortification, and the life of an outcast. "But I hear you are restored to the list, sir."
Laurence scarcely repressed a flinch: he, the actual traitor, had been reinstated, and guiltless Ferris had not. And that very injustice now barred Laurence from giving him a real place: as a captain of the Aerial Corps, he could appoint only aviators to Temeraire's crew. He might contrive to offer Ferris some unofficial position, as a hanger-on of sorts; but such a situation could only be deeply painful, putting Ferris in daily company with aviators less gifted and likely to offer him the same disdain which Laurence with more justice had met.
He made the offer nevertheless. "If you should care for such employment as should offer itself," he said, the details of necessity remaining vague, "and would not object to the journey, I would be glad of your-" There he stopped, and finished awkwardly with, "-company," as the best of inadequate choices.
"I would be glad of-of the opportunity," Ferris said, also awkward; that he perceived all the same disadvantages as did Laurence was plain, and equally plain that he was resigned to them. Laurence could not help but recognize he had no other alternative that was preferable: a miserable situation in which to offer a man work, knowing him unable to refuse.
"I will send word to the Allegiance; if you will be so good as to transfer your things there," Laurence said. "We leave at the earliest opportunity."
"I am very sorry not to be able to oblige you, Captain," Hammond said, "but of course, you understand that only Royal dispensation can make any remedy-I would be happy to write a letter, in this regard-"
Laurence had written before now, more than once, and knew that Jane would have gladly seen Ferris reinstated as well if she could; he was not in the least sanguine. "Sir," he said, "I beg you will forgive me; I have made no demands, nor have I any for myself or for Temeraire, but I must make this my price, as little as I like to have one. You must see there is no just cause why I should have my rank restored, and Mr. Ferris not."
"He does not have a dragon," Hammond said, brutally. "No," he added, "I do understand your sentiments, Captain, and without exceeding myself I will venture so far as to say, the successful accomplishment of our mission should certainly have a material and beneficial effect on his suit; particularly if the young man in question-I understand he will be accompanying us?-should manage to be of service during the expedition."
With such scant assurances, insufficient even to mention to Ferris, Laurence was forced to content himself; and he regretted the lack even more when he had completed his interviews: the crew he had managed to assemble was not one such as to inspire great confidence. He had taken on Lieutenant Forthing, who had shown himself a competent officer if not a brilliant one, during their crossing of the continent; and for midshipmen three of the younger men: Cavendish, Bellew, and Avery. These were distinguished from the others mainly for their having had less time in their careers to demonstrate a lack of initiative or skill, so he could have some small hope of uncovering some previously hidden talent.
The farewell dinner, given by Mrs. MacArthur, was an event of considerable magnificence despite the limitations of the colony; her husband had been reasonable, or at least sufficiently so to persuade Hammond to endorse the occasion. "You know, Ambassador, I don't care if I shall call myself First Minister or Governor or Grand High Master of Kangaroos, in the least," MacArthur had said to him, and repeated at nearly every opportunity, with small variations, wherever witnesses would listen to him, "so long as it is understood we must be allowed to know our business better than anyone else, and let to settle it ourselves, instead of this sitting fire waiting eight months for word from Westminster, or worse, having some Navy officer with more will than mother-wit come blundering in to set us at logger-heads with our nearer neighbors, and they only looking for good trading partners, as we would anyhow care to be ."
The distinction between this position and real independence seemed to Laurence a vague semantical thing, but at least for the moment Hammond professed himself satisfied to indeed call MacArthur Governor, and to see the British colors on the flagpole above the Government House, and to attend his dinner there.
The table was lopsided, almost inevitably, but Mrs. MacArthur had managed to find enough women to intersperse between any men of the rank of lieutenant or higher, so at least the upper half of her table preserved the appearance of even numbers. There was still very little in the way of society in the colony, and Laurence found himself seated beside the particularly beautiful wife of a captain in the New South Wales Corps, one of MacArthur's subordinates, whom a very little conversation sufficed to discover had come over on a convict ship, for pickpocketing.
Mrs. Gerald could not be called respectable except in the article of her marriage, which she did not scruple to avow, over her third glass, "the best joke, because Timothy would always go on as he was hanging out for a rich woman, when he should go back to England; and nothing more tiresome for a girl to hear. So I wrote out a long letter to myself, and put on it the name of an old beau of mine back home, saying as how he was coming out and meant to have me, with a ring if you please, and I left it about where Timothy should see it: meaning only to keep him from going on as though I was beneath thinking of for anybody. But he went into a rage, and stormed about so, that I lost my temper quite and said he might marry me himself, or else go about his business; and so here I am! And I swear he is none the worse by it, for I am sure no rich woman would know the first thing about how to get on in a country like this."
She was, despite lacking any shade of sensibility, an amiable dinner companion, more so than the wretched creature on Laurence's other side, whom he would have been astonished to find a day above fifteen years of age, evidently released from the schoolroom just in time for the event. Despite a better share of the virtues of birth and education than Mrs. Gerald, Miss Hershelm was stricken with so much shyness that all Laurence's efforts could barely win a syllable from her lips; she did not raise her eyes from her plate even once.
He could not think the occasion ideal for such a child, particularly when the younger men lower down the table began to show signs of forgetting their company, and growing boisterous. Laurence saw Mrs. MacArthur glance down the table, and a quick word to her butler followed; an assemblage of cheeses and sweets came to the table accompanying the pudding, in a rather incoherent combination. Laurence rather suspected another two courses had been intended and forgone, though no-one could have complained of the menu so far: fresh-caught roughy in a sauce of lemons and oranges, with fresh peas; an exceedingly handsome crown roast of lamb ornamented with preserved cherries; new potatoes in their skins presented alongside veal chops dressed with brown butter; a whole tunny baked in salt crust, occupying half the table.
But when the pudding had been cleared, Mrs. MacArthur rose; with equal prudence, MacArthur did not let the port go round very long after dinner was cleared, and proposed their rejoining the ladies almost at once.
When they had come into the drawing rooms, several of the women had vanished, Miss Hershelm among them, Laurence was glad to see; Mrs. Gerald, on the other hand, coming up took him by the arm and declared her intention of presenting him to all the eligible young ladies of the company.
"For it is a great shame you should not be doing some girl any good," she said, "and it is really too bad of you; I am sure you could use some good company, and you needn't worry I will present you to anyone so poor-spirited as to mind a dragon. Miss Oakley, may I introduce to you Captain Laurence?"
Laurence managed eventually to demur, on the grounds of ineligibility and imminent departure both, and joined Hammond by the balcony, where he was speaking with another of the ladies: a Mrs. Pemberton, widowed on the very journey which had brought her to the colony, and only lately out of black gloves.
"I do not suppose we would have thought of it, save that Elizabeth-Mrs. MacArthur-is a friend of mine, from our schoolroom days," she said, Hammond having exclaimed over her having made so long a journey. "But having made your own home in so distant a country as China, can you be so surprised that others might wish to see more of the world than encompassed by a single parish in Devonshire, and six weeks in London? I was glad of the notion when she proposed our coming and taking up a grant of land; her husband would have had work for mine. But there is nothing for a woman alone to do here."
Except to marry again, she did not say, and her speaking look at the company-grown coarser by the moment, and more loud-made clear she did not see much to admire in the local prospects.
"You might return to England," Hammond said.
"And go back to Devonshire, and tat lace with my mother-in-law, while her pug snores at our feet," she said, dryly: it did not seem the sort of portrait which would appeal to a woman who had willingly followed her husband across the world to a half-established colony. "I understand you are gone away again shortly, yourselves?"
"As soon as we have our tide, and the wind is in the west," Hammond said, poetic but quite inaccurate, as making sail with a westerly wind from her present anchorage would serve better to drive the Allegiance onto the harbor rocks than to the open ocean. "But I do hope to return to England, ma'am, someday. I do not grudge my country any service, but I am not so peripatetic as that; and surely the delights of home must call still more to a woman's heart."
"And you, Captain Laurence?" she asked. "Does your heart yearn for a quiet retirement at the end of your service, and a house in the country?"
There was something a little mocking in her tone. "Only if there were room enough for a dragon," Laurence said, and excused himself to step outside and take the air: in the dark, with the lights of the house shining and the garden full of palm-trees and fruit bats obscured, he might have been at exactly that sort of manor, which he might indeed have imagined for himself, six years and a lifetime ago. He had given the future scarcely a thought since then, occupied excessively by an unexpected present; he was surprised to find he would now gladly prefer his isolate valley, with all its toil and inconveniences.
But the valley had been left behind: the cattle sold, or loaded aboard the Allegiance to feed the dragons; the pavilion roofless under the stars with its pillars sentinel over the half-grown sheaves of wheat. No caretaker could be found for so lonely a place; if ever they returned, there would be vines twining the pillars, and weeds and saplings thick in the fields they had so laboriously cleared.

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